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Training the Pistol

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Adrian Bozman of San Francisco CrossFit covers the basic pistol (one-legged squat), modifications, and assists. He teaches several progressions and tactics for working toward success, for those who aren't yet able to do a full pistol unassisted.

He also presents, and demonstrates, some more challenging weighted variations, for those who are already solid on the fundamental move: single weight in front, asymmetrical load, one weight on each shoulder, and one-arm overhead load.

Adrian Bozman is the head coach at San Francisco CrossFit. He has been coaching athletes, regular Joes, and anyone who will listen since 2004.

On the Safety and Efficacy of Overhead Lifting


This month we respond to the oft-heard conjecture that lifting overhead is inherently dangerous--i.e., that it is destructive of the shoulder. Conjecture, by definition, is required neither to comport with fact nor to offer testable proposition, and, as such, it is a ready vehicle for those limited in the skills, focus, or desire required to give thoughtful examination on any topic. (See "Conjecture, Hypothesis, Theory, Law" in CrossFit Journal 64, December 2007.) "Squatting is bad for the knees," "lying down after a workout is dangerous to the heart," "swimming shortly after eating causes drowning," and "overhead lifts are bad for the shoulders" are all conjectures unsupported by data, untested by experimentation, and at odds with fact, yet each has at one time or another been offered as "common knowledge" in athletic communities.

Additionally, proving the non-existence of anything is fraught with logical difficulty. If you claim to be in possession of a unicorn, for example, by what process am I to prove the falsity of your claim? The point is that the burden of proof for conjecture lies with those who offer it, not those who are witness to it. No response ought to be required of conjecture until it is supported by data and experimentation--that is, until it is presented as a hypothesis and subsequently elevated by experimentation and data to become a theory. This is a simple protocol of rhetoric required by logic and practicality.

Although we CrossFitters do our share of both heavy slow lifts and Olympic lifts, where grip plays an important role, grip is probably not something many of us actively focus on training. But grip strength is no less important to us than to full-time powerlifters, Olympic lifters, strongmen, or grapplers. In fact, the nature of our broad training approach means that we have a greater need for healthy hands and multi-dimensional hand strength than most sport-specific athletes. We are also exposed to more potential hand and forearm injuries. Those CrossFitters in law enforcement and combat duties and sports are already aware of the importance of a strong grip and may want to give this training area even more emphasis. This article is an overview of grip strength and will suggest ways to add hand and forearm strength and conditioning work to your training, complete with a sample weekly workout plan at the end.

There are three broad categories of grip strength: crushing, pinching, and supporting. Crushing strength is actively closing the hand, bringing the fingers across the palm with the thumb in essentially a supporting role. Think shaking hands. Pinch grip is a supporting grip, that is, a static grip that holds an object, with the fingers on one side of an implement, usually but not always flat, and the thumb on the other side. Holding a 2 x 6-inch board by the edge and doing rafter pull-ups, for example, require pinch strength. Support or open-hand grip is set around an object to hold it (or you) in place. Deadlifting and rock climbing use this grip.

To receive the maximum benefits from your jump rope training sessions, you'll want to follow the four steps of my jump rope system (preparation, intermediate, conditioning, and sports training phases) for safe progression. This will be especially important when we reach the high-intensity jump rope training programs for developing superior fitness and increasing competitive advantages in time and space that I will discuss in future articles.

Once you have completed the first part of the preparation phase, explained in my October 2007 article (which teaches proficiency with proper jump rope form and the two basic jumping techniques, and discusses equipment, environment, and safety), you will enter into the second part of the preparation phase. During this period, the goal is to build from your established jump rope proficiency of 140 to 500 consecutive jumps in safe increments.

Building jump rope endurance to 500 jumps Remember, jumping is a skilled movement that requires proper timing and coordination of the rope swing to complete each jump. During the second half of the preparation phase, we will work up to 500 jumps in order to develop a basic jump rope capacity. In the beginning, it is best to strive for a set number of jumps instead of time because it will help you to gradually increase your jump rope endurance and coordination while keeping you challenged and motivated every step of the way.

Dr. Tabata and the Dumbbell

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In 1996, Dr. Izumi Tabata published the results of a study demonstrating, with speed skaters, that the aerobic and anaerobic pathways could be trained simultaneously (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 28). This was a significant finding, as most authorities had regarded the two pathways--and training for them--as compartmentalized. Aerobic training was largely long slow distance (LSD) work, and anaerobic training was typically regarded as some hard-to-measure dark component left to the explosion sports.

Dr. Tabata examined several different protocols but settled on eight sets of twenty-second work intervals alternating with ten-second rest intervals as the most effective interval times for improving VO 2 max. In the original study the intervals were performed at a quantifiable 170 percent of VO2 max. (Just think max effort.) In the field, where measurements are more subjective, the effort should be such that on the eighth set the trainee is nearing exhaustion. In the original study, the test subjects doing 4-minute "Tabata" intervals saw greater VO2 max improvement than the control group that did 60-minute sessions of moderate- intensity exercise. Moreover, as Greg Glassman points out, these high-intensity efforts produce this dramatic aerobic benefit without the muscle wasting brought about by endurance training. of some sort of midsection work, with or without dumbbells.

Video Article!

CrossFit workouts emphasize high-skill movements (relative to isolation and/or machine-based movements) because they are, in almost every respect, better vehicles for optimizing fitness--for achieving CrossFit's mission of increasing work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

In this lecture from a recent CrossFit certification seminar, Greg Glassman looks at the differences among the shoulder press, push press, and push jerk and compares them to the differences between strict and kipping pull-ups. The advantage of the "better" (more dynamic) movements, he explains, lies in the power they express. They are consistently farther along the almost every continuum that matters: athleticism, power, intensity, skill, and utility.

Bad Form

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I was driving home the other night, listening to the radio, and the guy filling in for Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM was talking to some other guy about Nazis, UFOs, the Kennedy Assassination, time travel, and George Bush, and how it all relates to OneWorldGovernment. This, of course, made me think about barbell training, and it occurred to me that good form on the barbell exercises should not be a matter for debate.

People should not be entitled to their own opinion about it, any more than they are entitled to an opinion about the value of x in 3x - 10 = 60, or whether the Grays pulled off the Bay of Pigs. Good form (or technique, or kinematics, or whatever you'd like to call doing it right) should depend on the logic of a dispassionate analysis of the body-and- barbell system in the motion required by the exercise, and that's about all. The exercise is chosen to work a particular movement pattern normal to the human skeleton, the bar has a certain path it most efficiently travels through space for the exercise, the skeleton must move in ways defined by its segment lengths and articulation points to enable this bar path, and the muscles must move the skeleton exactly this way. Anything that deviates from this is Bad Form.

When I was training as a wrestler for the 1992 Olympic Games, the jump rope, along with many of the kinds of functional training exercises embraced by CrossFit, were the keys to my development into one the quickest, most explosive, and most highly conditioned wrestlers in the world. I believe that CrossFit's fitness principles of functionality, intensity, and variety are taking us back to the basics and setting the standards that can help our nation to regain its health. Jump rope can be an important part of fitness and sports training, providing key advantages in developing dynamic balance, speed, quickness, agility, coordination, concentration, and cardiorespiratory efficiency.

Misconceptions about jump rope

Many people think jump rope is so simple that any rope and material will do and that instruction is not necessary.

An Explosive Combination

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Early last month I launched the third volume in my Dumbbell Moves DVD series. It was a momentous occasion for me, as it pulled together several concepts I had been working on since before I began Volume I. And it was especially rewarding because I had the assistance of one of the first prominent CrossFit athletes--two- time skiing Olympian Eva Twardokens--demonstrating the combination moves for the DVD. What a treat! The series is dedicated to presenting a concept of conditioning that combines agility training with full-body resistance movements. To my knowledge, this has been unusual in the athletic conditioning world. Since the early 198px0s, while I was working with athletes ranging from luge participants to collegiate volleyball players, I have employed both agility work and functional full-body movements, but it wasn't until more recently, with the influence of CrossFit, that I put them together on a regular basis.

Taking my cue from CrossFit, I shredded the conventional rule books and combined what many traditionalists would not combine. I took power movements using barbells and dumbbells (such as Olympic lifts) and traditional agility drills and concocted workouts that combined the two.

As you look everywhere in the sporting world you see athletes performing sports with a rotational component. In sports such as baseball, tennis, and golf, the athlete must transfer ground forces through the middle of the body to the upper extremities. Without getting into physics involved, suffice it to say that those with weaker rotational strength and experience will not be as successful and will most likely end up with aches, pains, and possibly even injuries. A little preparation and prevention goes a long way.

In this month's Dumbbell Coach article, I present the three-step process I use for improving rotational strength and health.

Step 1: Get good at overhead squats. The first step in developing rotational strength is to get weight above the head. This triggers the musculature about the lumbar region to work in stabilizing the area. Basic strength in this area lays a good foundation for more complex moves and additional strength-endurance conditioning later. athlete can correct potential problems or avoid injury. Overhead squatting your bodyweight on a barbell for fifteen reps or performing a single rep with bodyweight plus 25 kg is a sign of elite ability.

The Dumbbell Bear

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While standing in a grocery store line the other day, I picked up one of the popular mainstream men's fitness publications. (I confess.) They are all the same. The models are topless, lean, and tan. Their makeup jobs take longer than those of all the girls I like, and their teeth are bigger and whiter than Mr. Ed's. To my utter amazement, though, the models in this particular issue were performing functional dumbbell movements (in this case the dumbbell snatch)! Not a biceps curl in sight! I would like to think the CrossFit Journal and this column are partly responsible.

Mainstream or not, this month's installment of the "Dumbbell Coach" column will focus on a challenge from my DVD Dumbbell Moves, Vol. 2. The dumbbell Bear is a unique complex that combines three of the most productive weight-lifting movements in a smoker of a task-priority workout.


I learned of the barbell version of the Bear in 2003. That version included a power clean, front squat, push press, and back squat in succession. The push press to back squat transition was difficult. The back squat toMy dumbbell version of the Bear consists of deadlifts, hang power cleans, and front squat / push presses (thrusters).

Now that you have had thirty days since last month's dumbbell article to work on your plank position, push- up and row, and vertical to horizontal movements, it's time to add other plank variations to the mix. I consider these to be more advanced, as they intensify the requirement to maintain a tight plank position with no sagging or piking. This article and its demo videos assume mastery of the plank variations from Part I of the "Dumbbells from the Plank" series in CrossFit Journal issue 56.

Roving variations

Roving dumbbell planks add a dynamic component to the plank position. From the plank position with dumbbells we rove or travel laterally. One can travel forward and backward, but my experience with the move indicates that the plank position generally becomes compromised when trying to move forward and backward on a dorsiflexed foot.

Roving dumbbell planks begin, as the name implies, in a plank position with the hands on dumbbells. From here, step out to the left side with the left hand and then the left foot. For a moment you are in a suspended spread eagle position, until you step in the same direction with the right hand and then the right foot, returning to you to the plank position you began in.than simply a number of steps to complete, and it allows for individual variation in step size.

When it comes to human movement in the context of both daily activities and athletic potential, there are unique physical skills that are useful and worth the investment of time and energy to develop. Some come very easily and naturally, and others demand greater effort and practice to develop the skill. One such worthwhile skill is the ability to balance on one leg and squat. The one-leg squat, popularly called the "pistol," is great for developing improved balance, lower-body strength, range of motion, and agility.

Historically, this movement has been associated with martial arts. My introduction to this sort of training was in Chinese boxing and what we call the crane dip, which is a more controlled and graceful (and difficult) version of the pistol. It is part of the physical conditioning methods that beginners should study and train to set a strong foundation. It requires what I like to call degrees of freedom of motion. To be as balanced in a low or a mid-range position as in a high position and to be able to move fluidly from a dynamic to a static control and back again in an unrestricted environment are very useful characteristics to develop.

The crane dip is distinguished from the pistol in a few important ways. While the pistol is performed with the non-working leg extended out in front of the body, floating in the air, the crane dip is performed while holding the extended leg with your hand. This support from the hand allows you to keep your body more upright than is possible with the pistol, because the support hand provides a counterbalance for your extended leg to press against, and also give you greater balance and stability throughout the entire range of motion.

The health lift, known more commonly as the deadlift, is the most basic of essential movements. If an athlete were to do little more than deadlift they would most certainly stay very functional and possesses good strength. I view the deadlift as a sign of vitality and independence. The simple task of squatting to the deck and picking up an implement represents baseline functionality. When someone can no longer squat and pick up their belongings, their independence is gone.

Deadlifting is traditionally executed straight on; facing the bar/dumbbell/dog food/landscape mulch, but deadlifting an object at the side is a different and equally useful skill. It can involve just about any object with a handle. Those living in rural areas or raised on a farm are accustomed to picking up their stuff and moving by foot to the destination.

Suitcase deadlifting with two objects allows for greater overall load and trains the grip and shoulder girdle stabilizers simultaneously. However, suitcase deadlifting is actually easier to manage with two objects, assuming the loads are reasonable, than with one. The counterbalancing of the loads reduces the stabilization requirements. This is why my suitcase deadlift workouts generally involve one dumbbell.

The Dumbbell Snatch

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Up until now the focus of our dumbbell work has been primarily on the slow lifts. These are essential to building foundational strength and should always be in your training movement pool. As you have seen, for cost effectiveness the dumbbell has no peer as a strength and conditioning tool. There is a point, though, where the training must move to the next level. That level is training for power. From my perspective there is no quality more coveted in athletics than power--the ability to move an object (or the body) through space in a short time. I train power with dumbbells in a number of different ways, but my favorite is the dumbbell snatch. In this article I'll cover three simple yet productive variations: the muscle snatch, the hang power snatch, and the deck snatch.

The low-tech dumbbell snatch is much easier than a barbell snatch. In fact, the two movements are similar in only three ways:
1. The load starts on the deck or in a hang position.
2. The load travels close to the body from the start position to overhead in a single move.
3. The load finishes extended over the head with locked-out arms and active shoulders.

The barbell snatch requires a much greater degree of kinesthetic awareness. The barbell length and mass at either end moving at a the speed of blur make it akin to steering a fire truck verses a Yugo. The primary movers for the dumbbell snatch are the ankle, knee, hip, and trunk extensors (a.k.a. the "power zone") and the shoulder flexors, scapular elevators, and shoulder stabilizers. However, the dumbbell snatch should not be implemented with the idea of targeting muscles but rather to focus on a specific performance- based goal--in this case, ground-based explosiveness of the ankle, knee, and hip.

Dumbbell Vertical Press

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When assessing the most functional of upper body movements, it is tough to argue against the efficacy of vertical pressing movements (a.k.a. overhead pressing). Those individuals who labor for a living routinely take items and place (press) them over the head onto something else. If you work around your home you’re often placed in a position of extending the arms above the head to retrieve or replace a needed item. If you participate in outdoor activities, the roof of the car often may carry equipment such as a bike, canoe, or kayak. Therefore, I officially rank vertical pressing as my number one choice for upper-body strengthening movements.

Dumbbells are the perfect tool for vertical pressing for a number of reasons. They are well suited to the anatomy of the shoulder, allowing the glenohumeral joint to follow a natural path as the weight is pressed.

The Dumbbell Lunge

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In last month's dumbbell article, we explored the effects of different loading positions for the bilateral squat. As I mentioned there, squats are a must for anyone seeking functional fitness. While squats are a heavily practiced movement for my clients, we also incorporate unilateral and contralateral single-leg support movements in the form of variation on the weighted lunge.

This set of exercises serves a couple purposes. First, it is rare that an athlete comes to me with a perfect balance of bilateral strength. Lunges address that difference with a functional, gait-oriented movement. Second, the lunge involves the kind of single-leg support, bilateral transfer of force, and trunk stabilization that are required for most sport, so it has broad carryover.

In coaching a naked lunge I ask the athlete to step as far forward as possible while maintaining an erect torso. The knees, toes, and eyes track forward at all times. Next I ask them to sink the hips. Many will have tight hips and the trailing leg will be perpendicular to the deck.

For those of you who I have not had the privilege of meeting or speaking with in the past, I'm known around the CrossFit community as the dumbbell coach. My friend Greg Glassman has referred to me as the King of the Dumbbells, a title I carry with pride. I am excited to bring you additional insight to dumbbell training here and in future issues of the CrossFit Journal.

I find the dumbbell a most important tool in my own practice and I believe that you too can learn to use the dumbbell as an athlete and a coach, even more--and in more ways--than you probably do already. This unique tool has limitless application.

Advantages of dumbbells
Let's review some of the practical advantages of dumbbells as training tools

Coach friendly - You can work small to large groups of individuals with dumbbells. My record is 60 participants for a workout. I'm simply more relaxed when my athletes are working with dumbbells.

Athlete/client friendly - Working with dumbbells is far less intimidating than wielding a barbell.

Cost effective - No need to purchase weight trees, bar clamps, bars, or platforms--or mortgage the house to purchase the popular yet overrated kettlebell.

Universal application
- I can train the entire range of clients with a set of varied-weight dumbbells. I can challenge the Olympian, college grappler, and the soccer mom all at once.

The Power Clean

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I have now been coaching the Olympic lifts for almost twenty years and am well aware that the full squat clean is a very important movement, both for motor skill development and for full-body conditioning. Learning it is important, since it is complicated, and learning complicated things improves the ability to learn. But I still teach the power clean to my novices first, just like Bill did.

This is not because I can’t teach the squat clean to inexperienced lifters. I can, and I have. But I choose not to because I think it interferes with learning the squat correctly.

The front squat—the “squat” part of the squat clean—and the back squat are two very different movements that happen to be similar enough to cause problems for a novice lifter. The back squat depends on hip drive for power out of the bottom, and relies on an initial hip extension.

The longer I stay in this business, the less fond I become of the bench press. And it’s not the fault of the exercise itself, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do if it’s incorporated correctly into the program.
It’s the injured shoulders, the big pecs and little legs, the $400 six-layer denim/moly-steel shirts, the 18-year-old football players who can “do 500,” the spotters with traps more fatigued than the bencher’s pecs.
But mainly, it’s the noise.

Not at my gym, of course. The vast majority of my members learned a while back that the best way to keep their shoulders healthy was to press and bench press in equal doses, quietly. But there are other gyms in which the bench press is the only upper-body lift done and is the main trapezius exercise for spotters, since deadlifting is pretty scarce in these places. And the yelling just annoys me all out of proportion to how much it should. I get really tired of spotters trying to sound like Macho Man Randy Savage, with their hands on the bar “spotting” every rep.

At CrossFit Wichita Falls/WFAC, spotters don’t touch the bar unless it’s going back down or has been stuck for long enough to get them worried. We all squat and pull, so our legs are generally in proportion. Just now there are no competitive powerlifters here, so most of the members don’t even know what a bench shirt is. (Quite honestly, if a bunch of them starting spending money on bench shirts, I’d probably feel compelled to raise my dues.) Here, benching is just another exercise, not the absolute measure of personal worth it is in some circles, and the noise level is commensurate with this more balanced, peaceful, logical worldview.


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Conditioning and Mobility with No Equipment

Be creative in your application of these movements. Practice them, and incorporate them into workouts. They are an excellent as part of an active warm-up, done in isolation for strength development, or built into metabolic conditioning routines. Specific programming and repetition schemes will vary depending on the fitness levels and goals of trainees.

Push-ups can range in difficulty from very easy to so difficult that few people can do them. Adjusting the difficulty level is simply a matter of changing hand placement and body level to alter leverage and load. Keeping the body upright and the hands in line with the shoulders scales the push-up for people who are just beginning their fitness journey. Placing the feet high and moving the hands lower, toward the hips, increases the loads dramatically and can challenge world-class athletes.

Decline push-up
To do push-ups with little or no resistance, start in a standing position, arms-length from a wall. Extend the arms in front of you at shoulder height to place your hands on the wall slightly wider than shoulder-width.

The Slow Lifts

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The “slow lifts”—the squat, the press, the deadlift, and the bench press—form the basis of any effective program to improve strength. And strength is very important. It is the difference between a very successful varsity athlete and a bench warmer, an independent older person and a nursing home resident, a correctly chosen gym membership and a waste of money.

When I was a little boy, my daddy took me to work with him at his café. He worked long hours and would never have gotten to see me if I hadn’t gone back to work with him in the afternoons, after his well-deserved and often interrupted nap. One of my favorite people to see at the café was the shoeshine guy from the barber shop on the corner. Roosevelt Pope was in his fifties at the time, and, had social conditions differed in the early 1930s when he was young, he would have been an amazing athlete. As I remember, he was about 5’10” at probably 190 lbs., with an athletic bearing and a broad sense of humor. Roosevelt had really nice arms, but I don’t know if he trained them. At the time I didn’t think to ask.

If you haven't heard all the debates about the kipping pull-up versus the strict pull-up, you should probably spend some time on the message board doing a bit of homework. Searching for "kipping" or "kipping pull-up" will return many threads, but the granddaddy of them all is bin/discus/discus.cgi?pg=prev&topic=22&page=9021. If you are already familiar with the debates, you undoubtedly know that the kipping pull-up is king. The question most beginners ask is, How can I learn to kip when I don't even have one pull-up? The answer is that it's possible to learn the movement with assistance. Often students who already have a number of strict pull-ups have the most trouble learning the kipping pull-up because it is necessary for them to break old, counterproductive habits first.

I developed this teaching progression by teaching myself how to kip and then trying the movements with my clients at CrossFit Santa Cruz. The progression has been surprisingly successful with practically every student who has employed it. Mastering the kipping pull-up is not only fun but also incredibly functional and powerful, and it will take minutes off many of your Workout of the Day (WOD) times.

We have four glute-ham developers (GHDs) at CrossFit Santa Cruz. We use them for back extensions and sit-ups. This month we explore the glute-ham developer sit-up, once more commonly referred to as a "roman chair sit-up."

The GHD sit-up was once a gym staple. In the gym today only rarely will someone be found doing other than back extensions on the GHD. In no small measure the decline of the GHD or roman chair sit-up coincided with the advent of the crunch. The crunch came to fashion on warnings and claims in popular media of the traditional sit-up’s destructive impact on the back.

It was argued that the GHD style sit-up's primary movers were the hip flexors and not the abs and consequently this sit-up, and sit-ups like it, were actually not good abdominal exercises. It was further argued that recruiting the hip flexors to lift the torso was destructive to the lumbar spine.

Kipping Pullups


Every manner of pull-up has its diehard fans. Wide and narrow grip, single and double suspension points, wide handle, rotating bar, slow, and behind the head all have their staunch supporters.

The default CrossFit pull-up, however - a violent, kipping, "anyhow" pull-up - has few supporters even among pull-up connoisseurs. Ours has always been the "cheating" pull-up.

Kipping comes in a myriad of styles, and each athlete has a signature kip, but in its most elegant form the kip is a transference of movement first generated in the horizontal plane, where it comes cheap and easy, to the vertical plane, where momentum and a perfectly timed pull from the back launch the athlete forcefully upward.

This "cheat" derives from a powerful and athletic reversal of hip direction – like that of the clean and the snatch – and expands the primary movers from just the back and arms down through the torso and hip to include the power zone. Far from being a cheat, kipping is a gateway skill with functional utility on the rings, parallel bars, high bar, and floor (the quickest way to get to your feet). Where most athletic communities avoid the kip, we go to great lengths to teach and learn it.

The most strident objectors to the kipping pull-up advocated by CrossFit have been the kettlebell swingers. They despise our "sloppy" pullups. Other communities have been confused by kipping but are ultimately receptive to it after an explanation of our reasons. The reaction of the Kettlebell community has been to call us a cult.

I know how much they love swinging kettlebells, so here is my attempt to show that their flavor of Kool-Aid is really not that different from ours. The trajectories of the kettlebell swing, snatch, and clean are eerily similar to the trajectory of a kipping pull-up. Both use horizontal displacement to generate momentum along an arc that ultimately produces vertical displacement. In simpler terms, the backswing adds power to the movement. My grandpa had a good term for this motor recruitment pattern. He called it "the old heaveho."

Dragon Door's brochure claims, "Amazingly, the Russian kettlebell will make you good at many things you have not practiced. Gireviks report on our Strength Forum that they run faster, bend sixty-penny nails, bench or deadlift heavier, etc., just from lifting kettlebells. The only time they see the barbell, a nail, or running shoes is during the test!"

I put emphasis on the heavier deadlifts because it goes to show that the ballistic loading of kettlebell swings can improve your limit strength. If you look at Dragon Door's testimonial page, you will find no less than eight happy customers who report new personal records on the deadlift following a period of nothing but kettlebell work.


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Twenty years ago I was awarded my first full-time job as the university's first fulltime strength and conditioning coach. Fresh out of graduate school and having served as an assistant conditioning coach in a Big 8 (now Big 12) athletic program I was ready to whip the world. There was only one problem. The school had a designated area for their new weight room but not enough equipment. The school was inadequately equipped with the classic barbell and the accompanying weights. I had conditioned using barbells and I had learned to write programs involving barbells. With only enough equipment to service half the team, it was determined that the underclassmen would use the dumbbells for their training. Since they were the lowest members of the food chain, they would have to wait to graduate to the next class. What happened next was a tremendous learning experience for this young coach.

What we discovered during the post-assessment phase of the program that included agility testing, speed and power was that the kids using dumbbells improved as much, if not more than the older kids using the barbells. Now I understand that it was not a controlled study and that the majority of the underclassmen had never experienced any structured conditioning before college. The impression it left on me was so powerful I began a quest to try new exercises and ways in which to incorporate dumbbells.

The Kettlebell Swing


At CrossFit we swing the kettlebell overhead while the kettlebell community swings to eye or shoulder height. No matter how many times we’re admonished for our excessive swing we proceed unabated? What gives? Are we in need of additional, more “qualified”, kettlebell instruction?

While admitting a penchant for iconoclasm, we are not contrary solely for the sake of being contrary. Rational foundations for our programming, exercises, and technique are fundamental to CrossFit’s charter. We swim against the current only when we believe that doing so delivers a stimulus truer to our product – elite fitness.

In the March 2004 issue of the CrossFit Journal we stated that, “Criteria for (exercise) selection include, range of joint motion, uniqueness of line of action, length of line of action, strength of line of action, commonness of motor pattern, demands on flexibility, irreducibility, utility, foundational value, measurable impact on adherents, and, frankly, potential for metabolically induced comfort.”

This month we apply some of these criteria to an analysis of the two kettlebell swings and then assess two other CrossFit staples, the clean & jerk and the“thruster” for comparison and further elucidation of our thinking in selecting exercises for regular inclusion in our program.

Medicine Ball Cleans

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The clean and jerk and the snatch, the Olympic lifts, present the toughest learning challenge in all of weight training. Absent these lifts, there are no complex movements found in the weight room. By contrast, the average collegiate gymnast has learned hundreds of movements at least as complex, difficult, and nuanced as the clean or snatch. In large part because most weight training is exceedingly simple, learning the Olympic lifts is for too many athletes a shock of frustration and incompetence.

Sadly, many coaches, trainers, and athletes have avoided these movements precisely because of their technical complexity. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the technical complexity of the quick lifts exactly contain the seeds of their worth. They train for, that is, they simultaneously demand and develop strength, power, speed, flexibility, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.

When examining the reasons offered for not teaching the Olympic lifts we cannot help but suspect that the lifts’ detractors have no first hand (real) experience with them. We want to see someone, anyone, do a technically sound clean or snatch at any weight and then offer a rationale for the movement’s restricted applicability. Were they dangerous or inappropriate for any particular population, we’d find coaches intimate with the lifts articulating the nature of their inappropriateness. We do not.

At CrossFit everyone learns the Olympic lifts – that’s right, everyone.

Much is currently being made of "functional exercise." A Google search returned 950,000 hits for "functional exercise." Even a cursory review of the Internet sites featuring “functional exercise” would seem to support the notion that functional exercise is something done on/with Swiss Balls and rubber bands.

Physical therapists define functional exercise as exercise in multiple planes using multiple joints. Legendary seminarist Paul Chek has his own definition, but much of what is termed functional exercise seems to be specialized exercises closely linked to rehabilitation and physical therapy.

Where functional exercise is touted for athletic training it seems to be largely about "core" training – lots of Swiss ball and trunk work. While surely of some value, this is not the functionality that CrossFit is pursuing and it is our contention that the benefits of functional movements, as we’ll define them, exceed the orthopedic and neurological advantages generally cited by advocates of "functionality."

The Deadlift

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The deadlift is unrivaled in its simplicity and impact while unique in its capacity for increasing head to toe strength.

Regardless of whether your fitness goals are to "rev up" your metabolism, increase strength or lean body mass, decrease body fat, rehabilitate your back, improve athletic performance, or maintain functional independence as a senior, the deadlift is a marked shortcut to that end.

To the detriment of millions, the deadlift is infrequently used and seldom seen either by most of the exercising public and/or, believe it or not, by athletes.

It might be that the deadlift' name has scared away the masses; its older name, "the healthlift," was a better choice for this perfect movement.

In its most advanced application the deadlift is prerequisite to, and a component of, "the world’s fastest lift," the snatch, and "the world’s most powerful lift," the clean; but it is also, quite simply, no more than the safe and sound approach by which any object should be lifted from the ground.

The deadlift, being no more than picking a thing off the ground, keeps company with standing, running, jumping, and throwing for functionality but imparts quick and prominent athletic advantage like no other exercise.

The Clean

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The King of All Exercises
Were it not for the snatch, the clean would have but laughable challenges to the title "King of All Exercises." Oddly, we start our examination of the clean with mention of the snatch, as many of the superlatives attributed to the clean apply equally to the snatch. Clearing the air early with admission of the snatch's peer status, we can speak more freely of the clean's unrivaled qualities and need not repeatedly suggest the snatch’s possible exception to the clean's peerless qualities.

The clean is a pure bit of functionality. The clean is simply pulling a load from the ground to the shoulders where frequently the object is being readied for lifting overhead. With the clean we take ourselves from standing over an object pulling it, to under it and supporting. (Compare this to the muscle-up where we take ourselves from under an object to supporting ourselves over it.)

In its finest expression the clean is a process by which the hips and legs launch a weight upward from the ground to about bellybutton height and then retreat under the weight with blinding speed to catch it before it has had the time to become a runaway train.

Glute-ham Developer Sit-up
This situp is performed on the glute-ham developer. The range of motion is from as far back in hip and back extension as you are comfortable up to where you can touch the pads above the shin and instep.

Aerobics instructors and gym trainers typically disavow sit-ups like these because of a reputed harm to the lumbar spine by the tugging on the spine of the iliopsoas. It is further argued that this movement largely misses the abdominals because the primary mover is the hip flexors and not the abdominals. While correct that the primary mover of this sit-up is the hip flexors the notion that this is ineffective abdominal training is more gym-trainer rot.

When not accustomed to glute-ham sit-ups a single exposure of several sets yields an ab soreness that is truly impressive. This experience should hopefully dispel the notion that strong hip flexion sit-ups don’t target the abs.

Though the hip flexors (iliopsoas and rectus femoris) are the primary movers the abs play a strong role in stabilizing the torso to prevent hyperextension of the spine. (This is, in our opinion, a more functional role for the abs than trunk flexion.) We encourage the abdominal’s role in the glute ham sit-up by cueing the athlete to begin the movement by curling the torso upward.

The Pullup


Interesting, intelligent, useful information about the pull-up is not easy to come by. Here’s an interesting article we found from Clarence Bass’ site on Pavel’s theory of “greasing the groove” (

Find us another. Please! There are internet sites and message boards dedicated to bench press technique, mechanics, routines, and performance, where nothing similar exists for the pull-up.

How can a movement of such enormous import stir such little interest? It doesn’t make sense that the pull-up doesn’t inspire the same discussion, analysis, and overall attention that so many other movements do like the bench press and squat.

The Push-up


The push-up, long a favorite among junior high school P.E. teachers and Marine Corps drill instructors, is for many, more closely associated with punishment than anything else. Though common to group exercise programs, its use in serious strength and conditioning regimens is infrequent. These days, the push-up, like the jumping jack, tends to be relegated to outdoor programs where the number of exercisers and lack of equipment make it a staple due to necessity.

In an earlier time the push-up was largely regarded as a measure of a man’s strength and fitness. In more modern times much of this reputation has been passed on to the bench press, but the push-up's passing misses the great opportunity to master a gateway movement to one of the most developmental progressions in all of fitness.

The push-up is more a family of movements than a single exercise. In fact, it is a progression that starts from the horizontal, which is the classic "P.E. push-up" and then, through gradually, incrementally, elevating the feet from the floor to a point where the athlete is eventually in a handstand, becomes the handstand push-up.

The Odd Lifts

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There are movements that will never make it to your local gym and they include some of the best exercises ever known. There is a collection of them known as "the odd lifts." It would be foolish to ignore these lifts. It would be even more foolish to approach them with other than extreme caution.

There are competitions with the odd lifts and they have an association - the United States All-Round Weightlifting Association (USAWA) The USAWA's web site covers the rules of the competitions and lifts.

We review the odd lifts with a mix of humor and awe. The humor is a juvenile humor because it finds its roots in the discomfort and injury of others – like kids' cartoons. Imagine the damage you could do with the Roman chair bench press alone. Or, how about the two-man clean and jerk?

The Overhead Lifts


Learning the progression of lifts that moves from the shoulder press, to the push press, to the push jerk has long been a staple of the CrossFit regimen. This progression offers the opportunity to acquire some essential motor recruitment patterns found in sport and life (functionality) while greatly improving strength in the “power zone” and upper body. In terms of power zone and functional recruitment patterns, the push press and push jerk have no peer among the other presses like the “king” of upper body lifts, the bench press.

As the athlete moves from shoulder press, to push press, to push jerk, the importance of core to extremity muscle recruitment is learned and reinforced. This concept alone would justify the practice and training of these lifts. Core to extremity muscular recruitment is foundational to the effective and efficient performance of athletic movement. The most common errors in punching, jumping, throwing, and a multitude of other athletic movements typically express themselves as a violation of this concept.

Squat Clinic

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Why Squat?

The squat is essential to your well-being. The squat can both greatly improve your athleticism and keep your hips, back, and knees sound and functioning in your senior years.

Not only is the squat not detrimental to the knees it is remarkably rehabilitative of cranky, damaged, or delicate knees. In fact, if you do not squat, your knees are not healthy regardless of how free of pain or discomfort you are. This is equally true of the hips and back.

The squat is no more an invention of a coach or trainer than is the hiccup or sneeze. It is a vital, natural, functional, component of your being. The squat, in the bottom position, is nature's intended sitting posture (chairs are not part of your biological make-up), and the rise from the bottom to the stand is the biomechanically sound method by which we stand-up. There is nothing contrived or artificial about this movement.

The Muscle-up


The muscle-up is astonishingly difficult to perform, unrivaled in building upper body strength, a critical survival skill, and most amazingly of all, virtually unknown.

This movement gets you from under things to on them.

Though containing a pull-up and a dip, its potency is due to neither. The heart of the muscle-up is the transition from pull-up to dip - the agonizing moment when you don’t know if you’re above or below.

That moment - the transition - can last from fractions to dozens of seconds. At low, deliberate speeds, the muscle-up takes a toll physically and psychologically that can only be justified by the benefit. No other movement can deliver the same upper body strength. Period.

This Frankenstein’s monster combination of pull-up and dip gives the exercise advantages that render it supreme among exercises as fundamental as the pull-up, rope climb, dips, push-ups, and even the almighty bench press.

We do our muscle-ups from rings chiefly because that’s the hardest place possible.


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